family enjoying holiday meal

These 12 tips can help you host a healthier holiday party

Holiday season is a great time to reflect on how blessed you are to have your friends and family for love and support. They mean a lot to you, and you couldn’t imagine life without them. But now, all those blessings are coming over to your house to celebrate!

You want to throw a great party and feed everyone something they’ll enjoy, but this is just one of several holiday parties for you and your loved ones, and you would like to get through this season without everyone adding inches to their waistlines.

You don’t need an expert to tell you that serving fruits, vegetables and lean proteins is healthier than serving foods full of fats and carbohydrates. You already know that. But, some get-togethers aren’t complete without Aunt Mae’s famous apple pie, or that delectable ham grandma always serves up as the main course. Indulging a little during the holidays is no crime!

Instead, consider these tips from an OSF HealthCare dietitian to help you host a healthier holiday party without sacrificing the fun.

1. Fruits and vegetables first

couple enjoying healthy holiday mealYou don’t have to ditch all the more guilty pleasures from the serving table. But, if you make the healthier foods like fruits and vegetables the first stations in a buffet lineup, your guests will be sure to have room on their plate for them and will be more likely to serve themselves some.

“If you place them at the end, people may skip the healthy items because their plate is already full,” said Kaela Ketcham, a Peoria-based clinical dietitian for OSF HealthCare. “Plus, you want people to get fiber, especially at holiday meals, because it will help fill them up with fewer calories.”

If you’re passing food instead of doing buffet-style, pass the vegetables around first so people definitely have space on their plate for them.

2. Serve a meal at a typical meal time

Often during the holidays, people will schedule a late lunch at 2 p.m., for example, or an early dinner at 4 p.m.

“That can throw off our eating pattern,” Ketcham said. “So try to serve lunch around noon and dinner around 5 or 6 p.m. to help you and your guests stay on a normal eating schedule. If you’re going to have a later lunch, serve a healthy snack at noon so your guests aren’t going into the meal ravenous and are less likely to overeat.”

3. When it comes to vegetables, have a variety of color

A variety of color can really attract your guests and draw their eyes.

“If we just have a pot of green salad or something, it may not attract anyone,” Ketcham said. “But if you have a veggie tray with greens, reds, oranges and yellows, that’s going to be really appealing, and most likely people are going to grab it versus just a bowl of carrots.”

4. Vegetables can be part of the décor

Arrange your veggie tray in the shape of something fun, like a turkey at Thanksgiving, or transform a plate of broccoli to look like a wreath with cherry tomatoes as holly, for example.

“This can make your veggie tray really appealing and serve as a fun part of your décor at the same time,” Ketcham said. “It becomes the star of the table, and who doesn’t want to say they ate some holly from the wreath or they ate the turkey’s nose? That can make it fun for kids, too, to encourage them to eat healthy.”

5. Setup a flavored water station

infused water stationHave a station with flavored water options, like different sparkling water flavors and water infused with natural flavors like cucumber. This provides a healthy beverage alternative to alcohol and can help control your guests’ hunger.

“A lot of times, our bodies can mistake thirst for hunger, so if your guests stay hydrated, they are less likely to act on a false hunger and overeat as a result,” Ketcham said.

6. Plate size matters

Provide your guests with a smaller plate, and they will have less open space on their plate that they might feel a need to fill with more food. In the U.S., 11-inch plates are now common, but providing your guests with a 9-inch plate can reduce the amount of food they serve themselves.

“When we see empty space on our plate, we tend to think we need to take more food so we won’t be hungry,” Ketcham said. “Two inches might not seem like a lot, but it can really add to the amount of calories-worth of food a person can fit.”

7. Same goes for serving ware

Provide smaller utensils like forks and spoons for eating and serving.

“The goal isn’t to make things more difficult for your guests, but for things that are calorie-heavy like dips, gravies or sauces – those things we tend to not need very much of – providing a teaspoon instead of a tablespoon can help your guests control the portion they serve themselves,” Ketcham said.

8. Precut the food

If you’re serving a buffet-style meal, cut the food into small pieces that make it easy to grab. This also promotes taking smaller portions to avoid overeating.

9. Place food away from the sitting area

Keeping the food near the action of the party can promote mindless grazing and extra calories. Your guests may eat more than they intended without realizing it.

“Out of sight, out of mind is the idea here,” Ketcham said. “Placing the food in a separate room requires your guests to make a conscious effort to seek it out, and they’re likely to be more aware of the amount of food they eat. And if someone is not hungry, they are less likely to seek the food out at all.”

10. Find out what dishes your guests are bringing

If guests are bringing dishes to contribute to the meal, find out what they are bringing ahead of time, so you can identify any missing food groups, fill those gaps yourself and help make sure everyone is getting a balanced meal.

11. Plan non-eating activities

family playing charades at ChristmastimeHave some fun games so your guests can interact while not thinking about food. Plan party games like charades, or arrange a gift exchange game.

“If the weather is nice, get outside. Having an activity after eating can encourage burning off some of the calories everyone just ate, as opposed to just sitting around and getting sleepy,” Ketcham said.

12. More courses with smaller portions

If you’re serving a family-style meal, break up the meal into separate smaller courses to extend the amount of time the meal lasts.

“It takes 20 minutes for our stomach to signal to our brains that we’re full,” Ketcham said. “Breaking up the meal into courses gives your guests’ brains time to process how hungry they still are by the time the next course arrives. After filling up a little more on the early salad course, your guests may be less hungry, and will eat less of the more calorie-rich and heavy main course and the dessert course.”

Last Updated: February 9, 2022

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About Author: Ken Harris

Ken Harris is the proudest father and was a writing coordinator for the Marketing & Communications division of OSF HealthCare.

He has a bachelor's in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked as a daily newspaper reporter for four years before leaving the field and eventually finding his way to OSF HealthCare.

In his free time, Ken likes reading, fly fishing, hanging out with his dog and generally pestering his lovely, patient wife.

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Categories: Diet & Exercise, Heart Health